Tuesday 23 January 2018

Gatland should give Sexton kicking duties for the greater good

Frankie Sheahan

The Lions have given themselves a horrible task facing into the series decider in Sydney next weekend after their efforts in the second Test in Melbourne on Saturday.

The tourists upped their game slightly from last week and I could not fault their intensity and overall effort. However, I feel they played with a 'not to lose' mentality. The Australians went all-out to win, upped their game by more than the Lions and this time they had a kicker to rely on.

As predicted, the loss of their natural leader Paul O'Connell proved a mortal blow for the Lions. He won't be there next weekend either and Sam Warburton is also set to miss out, leaving the very experienced Brian O'Driscoll to lead the Lions.

This is a huge bonus for the tourists. O'Driscoll had one of his best days in Melbourne. He tackled like a demon as usual, was a pest over Australian ball and forced a penalty or two for his side.

The only blot on his copybook was a loose kick midway through the second half that triggered a lengthy period of pressure from the home side. Facing a team with manic attack in mind, that's a dangerous tactic.

O'Driscoll is one of the most decorated players the game has seen, but he has never been on a victorious Lions tour. Leading them out in the third Test, he'll be extra keen to right that at his last attempt and I would not like to bet against him.

Apart from the loss of O'Connell's leadership qualities, he was really missed in the line-out. Once again the Lions failed to execute off the back of the set-piece, which in turn put pressure on their scrum-half to feed in-field and on their centres to get across the gain line.

And when Tom Youngs came under scrutiny late on, his darts failed to hit the target.

Richard Hibbard has the look of a man desperate for a start next weekend, and when he was introduced the scrum improved remarkably, with once massive shunt to earn what should have been a penalty in his first scrum.

However, that impetus was negated by the withdrawal of Adam Jones. He may have been struggling fitness-wise, but he would have maintained the Lions' superiority in the scrum.

With Warburton a likely absentee now, I would make wholesale changes. Sean O'Brien will probably start at openside flanker in place of the captain, I'd give Jamie Heaslip a run at blindside because Toby Faletau has to come into the reckoning.

Ben Youngs was hauled off shortly after the hour mark following an average showing and Conor Murray really impressed on his introduction. The Lions face the possibility of changing their starting scrum-half for the third time in three games.

I think Gatland will opt to recall the rested Mike Phillips, but Murray did his cause no harm with a solid display. His first action was to win a turnover penalty at the breakdown and he kicked and tackled superbly.

But the biggest concern was how, once again, the Lions failed to manage the game correctly, especially when the pressure was on them late on. They sat back, inviting the Australians on to them for the last half an hour, and there isn't a team on earth that can hold out that sort of pressure.

They also seemed confused as to whether they wanted to play a forward-orientated game or wide, expansive rugby.

TACTICS

It was great to see the Lions turn to the maul and scrum powerfully in the first quarter. At that stage it was all going according to plan: they were kicking their penalties and keeping it tight, but for some reason they moved away from those tactics after the restart.

Once the game turned loose it suited the Australians. The difference this week was they had a kicker they could turn to in Christian Leali'ifano and once Adam Ashley-Cooper touched down he was never going to miss.

The Wallabies should be applauded for the way they went about the game. In the 71st minute they turned down a simple penalty under the posts and went for an attacking scrum.

They went for the win. They played superb enterprising rugby; their handling, offloading, awareness of space and instinctive communication was second to none. You have to admire them.

Looking to next weekend Gatland has a serious decision to make. He needs to make more changes, but his biggest call will be whether he hands the place-kicking duties to Jonathan Sexton or sticks with Leigh Halfpenny.

It seems that not having the responsibility of making the pressure kicks could be affecting Sexton's overall game. It would be like playing a hooker and getting someone else to throw.

Halfpenny has done nothing wrong. That late penalty to win the series was 50pc at best, but for the good of the team it might be a smart move to give Sexton a go.

MY TEAM FOR THIRD TEST – L Halfpenny; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll, M Tuilagi, G North; J Sexton, M Phillips; R Grant, R Hibbard, A Jones; A-W Jones, R Gray; J Heaslip, S O'Brien, T Faletau.

Irish Independent

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